David O. Russell, Amy Adams, Colleen
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The 20th annual SAG Awards culminated with Sony’s “American Hustle” nabbing the film ensemble prize, which is a victory in several senses. But is it a game-changer?

When “Argo” won last year, it was a signal that the tide was turning. The SAG win follows “12 Years a Slave’s” top honors at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards this week. So the “Hustle” victory proves one thing: it’s a genuine race this year and “Hustle” is an unquestionable player.

Accepting the award, Bradley Cooper made an eloquent speech praising David O. Russell and saying “he is an actors’ director.” That help explains the SAG win and could be a factor in Oscar voting, since thesps are 20% of the Academy’s voting body.

But there are several footnotes to the SAG win, since only three of Oscar’s nine best-picture contenders were in the SAG race. “Gravity,” for example, never seemed likely to be seriously considered for the SAG ensemble prize and “Wolf of Wall Street” wasn’t available in time for SAG noms.

The point is, a lot can happen in the next six weeks.

But it’s clear that “Hustle” has a lot of fans. The winner of the SAG Ensemble award has proceeded to win the best-picture Oscar in five out of the last eight years. For the “American Hustle” team, that’s reassuring, but for the other rivals of Oscar, the odds are hardly conclusive.

The other big winners at the kudocast, held Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium, include Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o (all with terrific speeches) and Matthew McConaughey.

The other four films contending for ensemble this year were “12 Years a Slave,” “August: Osage County,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

For any Oscar hopeful who didn’t win Saturday, here’s a cheering fact: Christoph Waltz last year won the supporting actor Academy Award for “Django Unchained,” but he had not even received a nom from SAG. (Tommy Lee Jones was the SAG winner.) Conversely, three of the four top acting prizes in SAG were repeated with Oscar: Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway.

SAG-AFTRA doles out six film awards, nine for TV. But because these handouts are part of the buildup to Oscar, the film side gets more attention.

The inaugural SAG Awards ceremony didn’t have an ensemble prize. For the films of 1995-2004, there was surprisingly little correlation between the ensemble and Oscar’s best pic: only four identical winners in 10 years. The turning point was when Lionsgate sent out screeners of the 2005 “Crash” to all 100,000 SAG voting members.

Before that, studios would arrange for special screenings or arrange with multiplexes to admit guild members. Since “Crash” had opened in late spring, it was on DVD, piracy wasn’t a concern. The film became the surprise winner at SAG and then the Oscars, and awards strategists ever since have traced a connection between the two honors, a theory fueled by the fact that the actors branch accounts for 20% of Academy voters.

Since “Crash,” the other SAG Ensemble winners that went on to Oscar were “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “Argo” (2012).

The variations were the SAG wins for “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Help,” while the respective Oscar winners were “The Departed” (2006), “The Hurt Locker” (2009) and “The Artist” (2011).

However, in a year as crowded and eclectic as this one, all bets are off.

Nominations are made by a SAG nominating committee. There are two nom-coms, one for film and one for TV, each with about 2,000 members randomly chosen across the country.

Final voting is by all members. Ever since the merger with AFTRA, there are 160,000 members, but only about 100,000 voted, because they were paid up on their dues.

There was poignance at the remembrance segment, especially since two of the shown actors were repped in competition this year: James Gandolfini had been nominated as supporting actor for the film “Enough Said,” while the “Fast and Furious 6” film stunt ensemble nom brought up memories of Paul Walker.

Rita Moreno received the Life Achievement Award, with a sensational speech that began with her blurting out the F-bomb and ended with her a cappella singing her thanks. Moreno was honored for a career that began in radio in the 1940s when she was 13, through her studio-contract days in the 1950s, and her status as one of the first EGOT winners (Emmy Grammy Oscar Tony).

This year marks the 20th annual awards, though Moreno received the 50th Life Achievement Award. SAG gave out this honor long before it formalized the current incarnation of the awards ceremony.

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